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A jazzy sound of success

Chidi Ahanotu splits time chewing up offenses and establishing menus at his new jazz club.

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Chidi Ahanotu is as determined to succeed with his restaurant as he is with the Bucs defense.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


TAMPA -- As the soothing sounds of jazz singer Sade meander through the restaurant's speaker system, Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu gazes around his newest business endeavor. He smiles at the possibilities.

A high-priced sports bar/jazz club, everything about the place reflects its new owner.

Like the man who has played a key role in the Bucs defensive dominance the past few years, this intimate joint is relaxed, sophisticated and inconspicuous.

It won't make the headlines, because it doesn't have to. It won't draw on the masses, because it doesn't need to. It won't fail, Ahanotu said, because the man with the money doesn't want it to.

"I didn't just jump into this," said Ahanotu, who signed a six-year, $30-million contract before the start of last season. "I studied it carefully. I did my research. Talked to the right people. The timing was right for us. We want to bring Tampa to a whole new level, sports bar and entertainment wise. We're not interested in beer and popcorn. We're interested in intimate accommodations. We're trying to discover new (jazz) acts. We're raising the stakes."

Before you understand Sacks Seafood Grill and House of Jazz, a 4,500-square-foot hideaway located at the western tip of Kennedy Boulevard just before the Howard Frankland Bridge, you must understand the man behind its revival.

In his eighth year since the Bucs drafted him in the sixth round out of California, Ahanotu, 29, is at the top of his game. One week into training camp, he said he could not be in better condition, physically and mentally. He could not be more prepared for what many believe will be the most significant season in Bucs history.

"At this point in my career, I feel like I have mastered this thing called football," Ahanotu said. "I have this thing down. I can do it in my sleep. It's the same defense we've been running since Tony (Dungy) got here. I'm a pretty educated guy and this isn't rocket science. I'm on top of my game."

Last season, Ahanotu rebounded from an injury-stalled 1998 to finish with 61/2 sacks and 63 tackles, starting 15 of the 16 regular-season games. Through seven seasons, the 6-2, 285-pounder has started 88 of a possible 97 games and has 27.5 career sacks, fifth all-time in Bucs history.

"When Chidi comes to work, he comes to work as focused as anyone I have seen," defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said. "With him, there are no errors. When you're doing one thing, he's doing three things all in the same time. He does his job in our system very, very well and comes to work every day. That's all I care about."

Ahanotu, who said he is often razzed by his teammates for spending so much time on the cellular phone, understands he finished behind backup Marcus Jones (7.5) in sacks last season. He understands critics will suggest his focus should be more on helping get the Bucs to the Super Bowl than on what color napkins should be placed in the Cigar Room.

But the restaurant, he said, is not a distraction.

"It's like a toy for me," Ahanotu said. "It's something I can escape to when I want to get away from the game. You know, football doesn't take up all of your time and if you don't have anything else to do, you sit around twiddling you thumbs or watching TV. I'm not that kind of person, I have to be doing something, creating something."

Formerly known as Bill's Sundowner, Sacks is a seafood and steak restaurant that seats about 165 people under a canopy of softly dimmed lights. This is no local watering hole. It's a high-rent, dress-code enforced establishment. There are 12 television screens of varying sizes -- all fixed into the walls, including two in the bathrooms -- a Cigar Room, two bars and enough sports memorabilia to make the shop in the local mall envious.

Instead of chicken wings, burgers, fries and onion rings, the menu boasts filet mignon, Alaskan king crab legs, Chidi's cajun shrimp and rice, and Louisiana crawfish.

Ahanotu's entertainment and promotion company, Magellan Enterprises, bought out the original owner early this year, and Ahanotu turned to a team of his trusted friends to run the restaurant. Business manager Charles Boyd and marketing guru Michael Davis are involved, but the man doing the bulk of the leg work is Hector Nieves, the restaurant's vice president of operations.

To Bucs fans, Nieves' name should sound familiar. He was the state trooper who tackled a fan who ran onto the field during a Bucs/Vikings Monday night game in December. Nieves, 29, left the Florida Highway Patrol in June to work for Ahanotu full time.

"I thought it was a terrible idea at first," said Nieves, who has known Ahanotu since Ahanotu was a rookie. "I was so afraid the restaurant business is a very tough one. You see them come and go. It's scary. My main concern was the food. People are picky and if you don't have good food, they won't return.

"Now, I like what I see. We have a bright future ahead."

For Ahanotu, business off the field resembles business on the field. Pay your dues, work hard, learn from your mistakes.

As a rookie, Ahanotu lost $50,000 trying to run a night club called "Ahanotu's" in Oakland. He said the financial hit and the sense of failure over that venture have prepared him for a second attempt.

"I had a learning experience," he said. "Now, I know what I need to do. All the leg work has to be done, all the foundation needs to be laid down to do this business. It's just like football.

"They are different in the obvious sense, but they are the same as far as the preparation. We're all CEO's of our own personal companies. When it's third and 7 and I have to go get this cat, I have to go get him. It's no different in the business world. You have to go get it done."

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